On the very same day, official voices of the ruling regime celebrated
one group of rebels in American history while condemning another. You
would have to be an expert in the peculiar politics of race and
government power to untangle the meaning and understand the inherent
First, we had officially sponsored events in all major urban centers
heralding M.L. King — er, sorry, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King
Jr. — as the man of the century, if not of all time. The story is
familiar: he courageously stood up to established power and nonviolently
defied the technicalities of law in order to see that justice was done,
and became a victim of a government smear campaign bent on destroying
him. Yet he persevered to the end, even to the point of giving his life
for a principle that is higher than any government.
Second, we had tens of thousands bused in to protest the Southern
battle flag — itself a symbol of rebellion against government — atop
the state capitol of South Carolina. The protesters say that the flag
represents the wrong kind of rebellion, one that defied the kind of
government power that official organs of opinion favor.
Defiance in one case is good; defiance in the other case is bad.
Apparently, the lesson that government should be resisted cannot be
generalized. Those who insist on flying the Southern battle flag are
“giving honor to treason,” explains Glenn Lowery of Boston University,
writing in the New York Times.
“I am disgusted by the spectacle of civil authorities in South
Carolina officially and publicly embracing a symbol of illegal rebellion
against legitimate national authority,” says the sometime champion of
law and order. “In retrospect, we can now see that those who fought
under the Confederate flag were treasonous rebels bent on the
destruction of our union.”
Let’s change a few words and see how it sounds. “I am disgusted by
the spectacle of self-appointed black leaders embracing Martin Luther
King, a symbol of illegal rebellion against legitimate authority.”
Continuing: “In retrospect we can now see that those who marched for
civil rights were treasonous rebels bent on the destruction of our
Not much between the two sentences to change. They both celebrate
established legal authority and condemn those who would violate it. Both
sentiments are consistently anti-rebel. And yet you won’t see the words
in the second rendering printed in any major newspaper, and, if they
were, the writer and the editor would be fired, or ordered to undergo
How is it that on the same day, the same groups and the same people,
can on the one hand uphold rebellion against legal authority as morally
required, and on the other hand as morally reprehensible? Why are the
Southern secessionists who bravely stood up to a ruling regime that was
oppressing them called hateful and treasonous, while the civil rights
protesters who defied a ruling regime called saintly models of courage
in the pursuit of justice?
On the face of it, the movements were not that different in tactics.
The South was non-violent in the sense that the Confederates had no
desire to go to war. They did not want to overthrow the central
government in Washington, D.C. They had no desire to tell any Northerner
how to live. They merely wanted to secede, which means to be left alone,
and went to war only to defend their homeland against brutal invasion.
Lowery himself hints at the answer by saying that those who fly the
battle flag are “obstructing social justice” while those who favor civil
rights are promoting the same. But this is not really an answer to our
question; it merely raises the issue of what constitutes social justice,
and what means are permitted to achieve it.
How can we know ahead of time what rebellions the media will like and
which ones they will oppose? Perhaps we are supposed to hate the South’s
rebellion because it was supposedly pro-slavery (a tiny minority of
Southerners held slaves) while the civil rights rebellion opposed the
remnants of slavery in segregation. But this explanation doesn’t hold
up. Citing only two points of a hundred, Northern legal codes enforced
the fugitive slave laws and even after the war freed slaves were rounded
up by the feds and forced to serve in union military escapades.
As for the civil-rights protesters opposing petty forms of slavery,
what is forcing private employers to hire on grounds of race, compelling
restaurant owners to wait on all comers, and coercing private landlords
to rent against their will, but involuntary servitude? What is the
threat of million-dollar lawsuits for the failure to promote members of
approved groups other than a form of legal terror, a threat no different
from that cited by civil-rights partisans as intolerable violations of
Let’s try out a different theory, which reveals the importance of
centralized power in the moral imaginations of left-wing cheerleaders.
On the one hand, the Southern secessionists and those who invoked the
cause of states’ rights in the 1960s were openly defying Leviathan —
the monstrous federal government that permits no challenge to its
authority, particularly not state and local governments that would like
to go their own way.
On the other hand, the civil-rights movement was rebelling against
local and state legal authority, and in so doing backing changes in the
legal code that the federal government favored. Now, it’s true that J.
Edgar Hoover spied on King’s personal antics, which he had no business
doing. And it’s true that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations didn’t
have much taste for non-violent protest tactics, for fear that they
could be broadened to oppose their wars.
But, generally speaking, the intellectual class and the federal
government in the ’50s and ’60s favored using the 14th amendment against
the states and abolishing even the freedom of association in private
contracts. For all the pieties offered up over the holiday weekend about
civil rights, there is only one unambiguous result of that movement:
federal bureaucracies intruding into our private lives more than ever.
Data show that lawsuits and settlements concerning alleged
civil-rights violations are at historic highs. And all the campaigns
that claim to have learned from the civil rights movement — whether
speaking for women’s rights, disabled rights, gay rights, animal rights,
or whatever — are united in their promotion of more government
authority over private decision-making.
These days, as in openly totalitarian regimes, wrongful speech in the
workplace is punished with a severity that surpasses crimes against
person and property. There is no such thing as freedom of contract, and
business owners can forget about managing their workforces without
cowering before the social-justice commissars.
The much-glorified “rebellion” against power was in fact a thinly
disguised movement in favor of ever-more power to the center at the
expense of lower orders of society. In contrast, the much-traduced
Southern rebellion of the 19th century was an authentic effort to
overthrow an illegitimate central power in favor of the rights
Southerners believed to be guaranteed by the Constitution.
Here, then, is the real reason why we are supposed to hate the
South’s rebellion and love the civil-rights rebellion; the latter
favored centralized power, while the former opposed it. The consistent
strain, then, is unwavering love of consolidated government.
There’s a lesson here for those who aspire to gain media accolades,
and to rest in the safe knowledge that their beliefs are certifiably
politically correct. Believe what the federal government wants you to
believe, do what the federal bureaucrats want you to do, and choose
political opinions that give ever more power to the central state, and
you can be guaranteed high praise, especially on the government’s
For those who really do believe that principle is more important than
power, and that higher law and the demands of justice must always come
before administrative edict, American history is filled with real
martyrs, real heroes, and real models of courage and defiance. But the
only kind of rebellion the ruling elites approve is the kind that
results in loss of liberty.